A Simple Plan to Start Reading More
I love the physical nature of books sitting on bookshelves waiting to be looked at, admired and remembered. I used to really like the library and I still love it. But when I look at my shelves, I realize that I have so many books that I have not read.
This post was originally published on Medium .
I bought them because over time I realized that in order to own a book – intellectually – I need to own this damn book . I needed to have this handy for reference. I needed to be able to write on it and take it off the shelf and put it back on the shelf and take it off the shelf and put it back on … you know.
So I started building my “anti-library” of unread books , and today, even after donating hundreds of books, my shelves are filled with books that I haven’t read yet. But I keep adding.
Looking at my shelves recently, I saw the book I wanted to read the longest, and actually started reading in the summer, stopping after about 150 pages to move on to more ” immediate ” reading. I wrote a book by Robert Caro , Power Broker . This is a classic of power politics in New York in the early to mid-20th century, seen through the eyes of the brilliant and evil Robert Moses. However, the glory and curse of the book is that it is an obstacle . It takes about 1110 pages – heavy. I think Caro said it was about 700,000 words. (Which was less than his original completed draft of over a million. )
It’s amazingly well written, it’s not tiring in any sense of the word, but even great books take time simply because of the sheer volume. The problem is, when you think about reading a book like this, it seems like even taking it off the shelf is anxiety . Let’s count: I read quite well, I think I read about 300 words per minute. That might be plus or minus 50 words, but I guess that’s a close estimate for a text written in modern English prose.
At 300 words per minute, a text of 700,000 words will take me 2333 minutes, or about 39 hours to read. And here’s the problem: The brain doesn’t seem to like getting started on 39-hour projects that it doesn’t get paid to do. So, more often than not, we choose something shorter and lighter . It still matters, right?
Then I thought of all the other great jobs I wanted to do in my life. Caro has four (eventually five) LBJ books that are masterpieces of 20th century American politics. I want to read Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire . I want to read Anna Karenina and Tolstoy’s War and Peace . I want to read Johnson Boswell . The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich Shearer. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. More biographies of Ron Chernow. ( Titanium is one of my all time favorites and I hear a lot about Alexander Hamilton .) All door stoppers.
It got me thinking. How the hell can these books be read? How can I become a person who will read all these books, and not talk about them? I read a lot on Farnam Street , but it’s hard to take a week out of our standard diet to sit down and read War and Peace. It’s the same with any busy person whose profession takes their days off.
The solution I came up with for myself is simple: it’s 25 pages a day. That’s all. Just do it and do it. What will 25 pages a day bring you?
Let’s say you probably won’t have time to read two days a month. Plus Christmas. This gives you 340 days of continuous reading per year. 25 pages a day for 340 days is 8,400 pages. 8,400. I have also found that when I dedicate at least 25 pages, I almost always read more. So let’s call 8,400 pages 10,000. (I would have to expand those 25 pages to 30 to get there.)
What can we do with 10,000 pages a year at a total rate of 25 a day?
As I said at the beginning, The Power Broker is 1100 pages long. The four LBJ books add up to 3,552 pages. The sum of two of Tolstoy’s masterpieces was 2,160 pieces. Gibbons is six volumes and about 3660 pages. These are 10,472 pages. This means that in about a year, at a modest rate of 25 pages a day, I have written 13 great works and learned a huge amount about the history of the world. In a year!
2017 remains to read Shearer’s Rise and Fall (1280), Carl Sandberg ‘s Six Volumes on Lincoln (2000?), The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith Unabridged (1200) and Johnson Boswell (1300) with more pages to read more.
This is how great works are read. Day after day. 25 pages at a time. No excuses.
Before anyone gets too literal, it’s not about numbers. (Although 25 pages is my literal rule.) It could be 20 pages, or 10 pages, or thirty minutes, or an hour, or 2000 words, no matter which “unit” of reading you choose, the math will still work: in six months, or a year, or five years, or ten years, you will have assimilated most of human wisdom. Ever wanted to read Moby Dick ? Or Ulysses ? Or Jane Austen’s books? Or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Joke ? Made! Get started today. 25 pages. Then do it tomorrow. Read in the morning, read at lunch, read before bed, read in the dentist’s office, it doesn’t matter. Just load your pages day after day. And then you will become a person who will read books that everyone is just talking about.
Which one you choose to read is up to you. I love history. I love biography. I love science. Apart from Tolstoy, I don’t read very many novels. But the task doesn’t seem daunting anymore, does it? All it takes is commitment and a little bit of dedication. So let’s go smarter.